I have a fascination with languages. I really enjoy studying them and learning them. When I study languages, I usually find myself curious about the culture the languages represent. I enjoy learning about the history and the literature that it exposes me to. For 12 years in school I studied French. While each of these years was formative in its own way, my real love for the French language took shape over Grades 8 through 12, where I was taught by a French teacher who cared for the class beyond our academic interest and ability. She took on three students for the French AS Level, which demanded the study of culture and the vocabulary that built beyond the standard vocabulary we learned for the GCSE, taking us closer to native fluency, allowing us to interact in French over a wider range of circumstances. While I wasn’t the best in French in my class, I really enjoyed the subject, and the language, especially the comprehension tasks. I took to comprehension tasks the most because they were the most flexible, allowing you to decipher contextual meaning. The weakest part of my repertoire was my speaking.
My French teacher knew this. She spotted the signs early in Grade 9, when I showed my nerves in examinations, but encouraged me to work with her through Grade 10 and 11 to improve on shedding them. She came in to the waiting room a little early on the morning of the board exam to check up on me, and did her best to assuage the nerves even as she realized we had to restart my recording after she had already introduced me; just as I was getting ready to say my first sentence. Her recognition that I was nervous aided me more than it caused me to falter, because I began to enjoy how nervous I was, knowing that once the flow of words opened like a tap from my soul, the nervousness would disappear.
I’ve had the good fortune of conversing in French outside of the classroom after that, particularly when I lived in Cessy for six weeks, commuting to Geneva for an internship. That played a formative role in the recalibration that occurred over the break.
Something I took up at the start of the year was studying Spanish. During the pandemic, I reached fluency that allowed me to work in the language and slowly began writing e-mails that were riddled in errors to people I was working with. They admired the effort, and to date, my communication with them continues in the language so I can improve my writing ability. I pick up things when they write to me, which adds to my knowledge of the language. During the pandemic, my parents suggested I use the time to learn another language, and – so it was, that I took to attending German classes for about eight weeks.
While it was amazing to be back in a WhatsApp classroom for German, something I told myself throughout this year was that knowing the language theoretically was of very little use to me. That’s where the recalibration begins.
Language was created as a medium of communication and expression. Linguistic rules serve a purpose insofar as they enable consistency in usage, thus allowing for individuals who interact within that language to be able to decipher what the other is conveying – because it correctly observes consistent prior usage. Linguistic phrasing, or the art of placing words to form sentences, I think, is not rule-restrictive, because organizations that monitor the development of languages recognize the expressive power language possesses. Recognizing this difference was at the core of my recalibration, because here’s what I realized.
Theoretically being able to point out linguistic rules and linguistic phrasing was helpful for examinations, but only helpful in real-life insofar as I could claim theoretical knowledge over a language. The more practical part was actually communicating and expressing myself through language, and thus being able to utilize the language for the purpose it was originally created.
While studying this year, I prioritized this communicative ability, which is why I learned Spanish through Duolingo and flashcards. Learning German through class and watching videos helped me gain confidence to speak, at least with my teacher, where it was okay to make mistakes.
What really helped was learning about the CEFR – which provides a useful framework by which knowledge of language is assessed. This prioritizes subject-matter interaction, classifying the subjects for which a beginner, intermediate, and advanced user should be able to articulate themselves across reading, writing, and speaking.
More critically though, I think the approach paid off in that I stopped shying away from making mistakes or telling people I would like to speak in a particular language with them. In comparsion to the personal joy I’m getting out of studying the language to read more books or discover more shows, or generally expand my own worldview – since I’m able to try reading the newspaper, for example, in different languages – the joy that comes out of attempting to communicate with somebody, to form an interpersonal connection, is far greater.
I’m grateful for the realization that language, at its core, recognizes the need to communicate and express. In a year filled with learning how better to empathize, I find myself searching and grasping for more ways to give voice to what is in my heart. Language fills that void on the daily.